July 23, 2008

By Bill Jaynes
The Kaselehlie Press

After eleven years of operation in the FSM, Caroline Islands Air plans to close its hangar doors and walk away at the end of the month. The airline that has been servicing the outer islands for emergency and routine needs can no longer afford to operate. Their last scheduled flight will be a round trip from Pohnpei to Sapwuafik on the 25th of July.

CIA asked Congress for a subsidy. Congress approved the subsidy which would have been in the amount of $166,537 but President Mori vetoed that line item in the budget package. President Mori, through a press release said that "he is of the view that CIA should operate more as a private entity and operate as such."

Senator Urusemal of Yap, former President of the FSM said during the most recent Congress session that Pacific Missionary Aviation, currently operating in Yap, receives subsidies from outside of the country through donations and that in light of that fact he could understand CIA's request for help.

After July 25, outer islanders who require immediate medical evacuation will be out of luck.

Servicing the needs of outer islanders in most of the FSM has become a problem. Sea going vessels in the FSM are designed to supply the transportation needs of FSMers in the outlying islands but most of those ships are in disrepair and can no longer get to the outer islands. Pohnpei's "Micro Glory" is inoperable and will need dry dock refitting. The repairs will cost at least a million dollars.

During the Chief Executive Council meetings in Palikir in January, the President committed to setting up a task force to look into FSM's serious problem with transportation amongst the islands.

David Reside, Country Director of the US Peace Corps, said that one of the passengers on the return flight from Sapwuafik on the 25th of July will be the last Peace Corps volunteer that is currently serving in the outer islands. The United States Government will not allow Peace Corps volunteers to be assigned in places where they cannot be evacuated within 24 hours in the event of an emergency requiring it.

Reside said that the Peace Corps had hoped to expand its relationship with the FSM by stationing a volunteer in Pingelap but that without the service of CIA or another airline that could meet the evacuation requirement they simply cannot do it.

The volunteer in the Mortlocks may also have to return due to the high price of fuel and the lack of a guarantee of the availability of evacuation. Reside said that Pacific Missionary Aviation told him that they could potentially island hop from Yap to the Mortlocks in the case of an emergency but that they couldn't guarantee it and the price would be high if they could. The Peace Corps needs guarantees for the safety of their volunteers and none are available for any of the outer islands of the FSM.

Lukner Weilbacher is the Chairman of the Board of Directors for CIA which is a government sponsored airline. When Weilbacher heard that the President had vetoed the line item in the budget that would have provided a subsidy for the airline he said "he was disgusted" and submitted his resignation. Weilbacher has been the Chairman of the Board since CIA opened eleven years ago.

This is not the first time that CIA has had to close down. Weilbacher said that he didn't know whether or not the current shutdown would be permanent.

The planes that CIA flies rely on aviation gasoline. Weilbacher said that Mobil does not provide that type of fuel in this region of the Pacific. CIA has always imported their fuel from a supplier in Australia. The fuel at one time was transshipped in Majuro and then brought to Pohnpei by PM&O. When PM&O stopped serving Pohnpei, CIA had to suspend its operations until they could work out a fuel shipment arrangement. The fuel now comes into Pohnpei on Matson Lines.

Fuel that had a "landed cost" of $150 a barrel when CIA opened now costs over $500.

Weilbacher said that if Pohnpei State would pay the $15,000 it owes to CIA right now in one lump sum they could order another half container of fuel and stay running for a while longer though there would be a delay while they wait for fuel to arrive. He said that Pohnpei has been making small payments for a long time.

CIA could possibly be revived if Congress overrides the President's veto. Even if Congress chooses to override the veto CIA will be short one pilot; their only pilot.

Alex Tretnoff is the company's CEO, pilot, mechanic and as Tretnoff put it, "bathroom cleaner". Weilbacher said that Tretnoff's dedication to the airline over the years has been nothing short of astounding. Tretnoff has missed paychecks when CIA's finances were tight but he stayed because he was committed. Weilbacher said that he didn't know what the airline would do without him if they reopened but FAA certified pilots and mechanics like Tretnoff are in high demand and he has had offers from other airlines.

Tretnoff says that no matter what happens in the next session of Congress he's out. He said he's tired of the politics.

An FSM delegation headed by Peter Christian, Secretary for Resources and Development recently visited the Harbin Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation in China where the Harbin Y-12 airplane is made. The delegation was looking into the possibility of acquiring for the FSM, two of the 20 passenger aircrafts.

Weilbacher, who was part of the delegation on one of the trips, said that his understanding was that if the deal went through one of the planes would be utilized as a Marine Surveillance plane and the other would be put into use at CIA. He said that each of the two planes would cost approximately $4.5 million.

The Y-12 utilizes jet fuel which is already being supplied in the FSM and would not need to be specially imported. It has long been a goal of CIA to utilize a fuel they could purchase locally so that they could pay as they needed fuel rather than paying for several months' supply at once as they have been forced to do in the past.

An official from the Chinese Embassy said that nothing has been finalized and that he didn't know if the FSM was still pursuing the matter or not. He said that the acquisition of the Harbin Y-12 aircraft would be financed under a preferential loan program from China if the FSM decides to purchase the aircraft.

The Department of Resources and Development referred us to the FSM Public Information Officer for information on the potential deal. We could not confirm FSM's plans regarding the planes since there is no public information officer. We also were unable to ascertain who would fly the planes if the FSM does buy them.